Thursday, March 24, 2005

The J-3 Cub (Part One)

The whole thing started with a gift from a friend, a gift certificate for an hour instruction in a Piper J‑3 Cub. Now I know what you are probably thinking but you would be wrong. You see I was already a seasoned pilot of some 12 years with time in Cessnas, Arrows, Mooneys, and the like. I had been bitten by the flying bug early in life and the aviation gods had long since claimed my soul.
I once started down the path to become a fighter pilot and somewhere along the line became an airport supervisor at a big air carrier airport. My first love would always be flying however, and I had vowed never to stop. The idea was to work in the field of aviation and make enough money to do the kind of flying I loved to do. After seven years in the same job at the same airport, this became harder and harder to do.

Then I met a friend, a man named Charlie Smith. A retired airline captain whom I had met one day as I drooled over his airplane after he flew into my airport. We talked a while of old airplanes and Grumman flying boats. We talked at length; though I mostly listened, for it was obvious that he had seen much and had wisdom to impart.

Now this new friend must have seen inside me someone who lay dormant for a long, long time. Someone he may have recognized, someone whom I had long since forgot. A reader of Ernest Gann and Richard Bach; a lover of classic airplanes, and sport flying; of silk scarves and faded leather; of wings of rag, and tails that drag; and oily old engines that start with the bare handed swing of a propeller.

So there I was, off to Hampton Airfield, with a certificate in hand that said simply “1hr duel instruction ‑ Piper Cub‑‑” What grand scheme spurred such a gift I do not know, I was simply thankful for Charlie’s generosity and looked forward to an enjoyable fun flight. For that is all a Cub is for, isn’t it? Just a simple old airplane that is all about fun. A Cub is not a practical airplane, not serious transportation. The J‑3 Cub is not an airplane anyone takes seriously, just a novelty in a world of high tech, high performance aircraft. I thought that while I was at it, I might as well get a tail wheel sign off in my logbook. I didn’t have any tail-wheel time but reasoned it shouldn’t take much to get signed off. What else would I have to learn from an old 65 hp trainer that didn’t even have a radio in it?

“I’ll just get the sign off in the cub today then its P‑51s tomorrow.” I thought to myself

I’ve already flown high performance airplanes with over 200 horsepower, retractable landing gear, and constant speed propellers, with RNAV, G.P.S., VOR, NDB, and DME. Pick your acronym and I’ve flown it. No, I wasn’t taking it too seriously. I just planed to enjoy what might be a once in a lifetime flight in a neat old airplane.

Then I reached Hampton Airfield, and was thrown back to another day; on a grass runway, with old-time barnstormers trading windswept rides for money, and views of our past seen through a frame of wings and wires.

My instructor Jeff Brown greeted me with a handshake and a smile. He seemed more excited about the flight than I was. He had an enthusiasm I had never seen in the stoic instructors I had come to known. Unconcerned with padding his logbook for some future airline job, he seemed a man at peace, doing what he was put on this planet to do and loving every minute of it. Instantly, I liked the man. I would later find that Jeff had been a CEO of some big company, but gave up his high powered, high paying job so that he could instruct full time in the Cubs.

Jeff took me aside and we talked for a while of the characteristics of the J‑3 and the differences in flying tail wheel airplanes.

“The transition shouldn’t be a difficult one,” he said, “for someone with lots of time in Cessnas like yourself.”

“You’ll just need to get a feel for the flair, and once you get it, you’ll have it.”

Jeff then walked me through a thorough preflight check of the J‑3 showing me how to look for creases or wrinkles in the fabric wings (the tell-tail sign of a broken spar), the simple sight gage for the fuel tank, and the Mag switch. We then climbed aboard the cramped little ship and a passer-by offered to prop us.

Yes that’s right; this brave man was going to start a brush-hog by swinging its blade…by hand! I was glad at that moment that it was him and not me.

The man called out to us “Off, Cracked, Breaks, Stick!”

“Mags Off, Throttle cracked, Breaks Set, Stick Back!” Jeff barked out in reply.

With this the brave man grabbed hold of the deadly blade gave it a push, a tug, and swung it through. Once, Twice, Three times it swung through. The man then stepped back and called out to us once more.

“Breaks, cracked, Stick, Hot!”

“Breaks, Cracked, Stick, and you’re Hot!” Jeff replied as he switched the Magnetos to the on position.

This brave stranger stepped forward once more, grabbed hold of the blade and with one fluid movement pulled the prop through one time. The engine started instantly. I slowly opened my eyes relieved to find that there were no bloody body parts flying back from the now turning propeller. The fearless Gent was in one peace; waving to us, smiling, and wishing us a good flight. Brought back to the task at hand by the voice of my instructor, I began the fairly familiar procedures, and run-up checks that prepare a man and craft to fly. Other than taxing, it was pretty much the same as any of the other airplanes I had flown.

After lining up on the grass runway I advanced the throttle forward and the little ship accelerated quickly forward. Within the first few feet the tail came up and the little ship lifted of the grass and climbed lightly and steeply into the wind.

“Climb at 50,” Jeff said. And so I pulled back on the stick and the cub rose sharply like a kite that had caught its wind. I couldn’t help but look out the side window and search the grass below for the little boy who surely must hold the other end of our string. Disappointed not to see his smiling face waving to us from below I turned my attention back to the task at hand.

Once in the air the little cub felt no different then any other light two seat airplane I had flown. She climbed out steadily and Jeff asked me to steer her out over the coast. We climbed up to 3,000 feet and practiced slow flight, stalls and steep turns. Here again the little ship would surprise me, for in a J-3 cub slow flight could best be described as hover flight, and stalls cannot be done until the little ship is stood in a near vertical tail stand. From that tail stand one has the option of stalling the little ship; which amounts to nothing more that a slight mushing decent, or pulling back further on the stick to complete a very gratifying if not pretty loop. We elected for the former, for as Jeff puts it the owner frowns on the latter.

We returned to the traffic pattern and Jeff walked me through a couple of landings He showed me the differences between the wheel landing and the three point landing and explaining when you would use each. And just like that our hour was up. I was disappointed because it all went by so quickly and I was having so much fun. It was getting dark however and I had an hours drive home.

Jeff and I shook hands and I promised to see him again soon.

On the drive home form Hampton I got to thinking about how I had been living my life and how little real flying I had been doing. I had seen it time and time again among my coworkers; pilots all, they had lost there wings. Chained to the ground by the shackles of everyday life, they flew less and less often. As days and soon months passed between flights, skills fading with each passing day making it less and less likely they would ever touch the sky again.

I had once vowed never to let that happen to me, even if I could afford only one hour a month to stay current I would do it.

‘Well if I miss this month that wouldn’t be too bad, I mean I’m trying to buy a house and I really need the money for...’ Wait! could it be happening to me? Charlie had known, he read it in me as sure as he could read a book.

It was then, on that drive home that I got reacquainted with the me I had forgotten and the man that Charlie had recognized. He had been there all along; hidden in a world of the FAA and EPA, of 2 mile long runways of concrete, Air Traffic Control, and Automated Terminal Weather Systems. Imprisoned behind x‑ray screening checkpoints and eight-foot fences of chain link, he had almost died only to be saved in his last moments by a new friend and some bright yellow wings. I made a promise to him right then and there; that man who would be me, that I would bring him back and finish a checkout in the J‑3 Cub.

Then I made a phone call to thank a good friend for the mystery gift that may have just saved my soul.

Two weeks later I returned to finish what I had started. I arrived on a Sunday and there was a lot more going on at the little aerodrome. I met up with Jeff as he was finishing up with another student and was sent out to pre‑flight the Cub on my own. I walked past a group of college age kids sitting on the grass watching the planes take off and land. I smiled and waved, but got only odd glances in return. I shrugged it off and began an awkward first time solo pre-flight of the Cub.

In the middle of my pre-flight another aircraft came taxing through, it was clear that he wished to squeeze between my cub’s parking spot and the hangar to get to his tie down spot. The kids saw this and walked over, grabbed hold of the Cub and began to pull it out of the way. None of them said a word to me until I grabbed hold and tried to help move the cub. “Don’t pull on that strut There!” one of them barked at me, “You’ll bend it!”

“What? Listen kid, I’ve been flying and moving airplanes around since you were riding tricycles…and you think you can tell me where I can and can not pull on a strut? She’s a battle ship not a show boat son…bend a strut...Ha! Who invited you to come over here and move the airplane in the middle of my preflight anyway? It wasn’t me buster, I can tell you that!’ – And I almost told him that too, but I didn’t say a word.

I took a step back and a moment to look at myself and realized I must look a fool. Just off from work, I stood in a shirt, tie, and shinny leather dress shoes at the side of a grass strip trying hard not to get any oil on my cloths as I pre-flight a Piper J‑3 Cub. If someone had seen me at my home airport dressed as I was, carefully pre-flighting a Mooney or Bonanza they would have thought nothing of it. A business man with his business airplane; I looked the part, it made perfect sense. But here at Hampton Airfield next to this airplane my pleated pants and white starched shirt screamed “First timer, Novice, Nugget, Pud-Knocker, Amateur!” “Better keep an eye on this one,” they must have thought, “before he hurts himself.”

I quickly removed my tie, though it made little difference. Already branded a fool, I would have to prove myself in the air.

Incredulous, I continued my pre-flight and awaited the arrival of my instructor.
Smiling as always Jeff approached and told me that I was to hold the airplane as he pulled the prop through. I climbed inside the back seat of the cub as Jeff walked around to the front of the airplane calling out “Stick back, Throttle Cracked, Breaks, Mags OFF!”

I pulled hard back on the stick until it pinched places that should never be pinched, stood on the toe-breaks until I felt sure they would bend, cracked open the throttle, checked the mags, leaned out to my right and replied.

“Ah…Stick, Cracked, Breaks and OFF!”

Jeff pulled the prop through three blades and then called out, “Stick back, breaks on, Throttle Cracked, Mags HOT!

Legs and feet now going numb from the ridiculous amount of pressure I was putting on the breaks and stick, I checked the throttle, switched on the mags, closed my eyes and called out. “Stick, Breaks, Cracked and you’re HOT!”

With that Jeff pulled the prop through one last time and the engine fired instantly. I opened my eyes to see Jeff’s ever smiling face as he climbed effortlessly into the front seat of the little ship. He looked back over his shoulder and said, “Ok, Lets get into the wind!”


Sunday, March 20, 2005

My first Airplane - The Cessna 150 (A.K.A. "Super Flea")

Thursday, March 25, 2004

It strikes me as I day dream about the purchase of my fist airplane, a 1973 Cessna 150L that though it is not my dream plane it is truly for me one of the world’s great airplanes. The lowly little Cessna 150 and its twin sister the Cessna 152 have done so much more for me than any other aircraft type. They certainly are not the airplanes that show up in my dreams but they are the airplanes that most frequently show up in my logbook and in my life.

It is a strange relationship that pilots have with the Cessna 150/152 (C150), I would not be surprised to find that as much as 75% of modern day pilots were taught to fly in the C150 and its line, This humble little ship has proven itself over fifty plus years of service yet like the Rodney Dangerfield of the aircraft world this little ship gets no respect at all.

I find it interesting that as I speak with friends of mine who are pilots who do not yet own an airplane and tell them that I am buying an airplane their initial reaction is one of excitement, “Really? Great! Wish I could own one. What type?”

“Oh, a little Cessna 150,” I reply.

And then it happens, the interest and excitement and even jealousy so previously evident in their face fades away.

“Oh, that’s nice.” They say, not quite looking you in the eye. If I could read their mind I bet I would hear them say, “I thought he said he owned an AIRPLANE. A 150? Don’t waist my time.”
Then right there in front of me with a smile on their face they start to put down my airplane!

“Oh, well when I buy an airplane, I am going to get a Mooney or a Skylane. You know something you can actually DO something with. I mean the 150 is OK I suppose, if you like that kind of thing, but I always found it too small to be practical. It’ll barely seat two people, it climbs like a dog, it’s very uncomfortable and it is much too slow. I mean what can you really do with a 150 anyway? You know what I mean?”

Actually no, I don’t know what you mean. I know what you think you mean, but I also know you do not know of what you speak.

I do know that in five years from now with several hundred more hours in my logbook, and many adventures under my belt spent with my airplane, you will still not have bought your “REAL AIRPLANE.” You will still be renting Cessna 150s on the weekends to stay current, and occasionally renting a “REAL AIRPLANE” for a quick day trip, or you will tag along with a friend in their airplane. I know because I have been there and I have discovered another way.

No a Cessna 150 is not going to impress your friends. It is in no way a SEXY airplane and will not break any speed or time-to-climb records. Still why does the little Cessna 150/152 threaten us pilots so? Why are we afraid to be seen flying one? Why is it that so many pilots feel so uncomfortable with the idea of owning a Cessna 150 or 152?

Could it be that they are afraid that Cessna 150/152 is so synonymous with flight training that everyone who sees them flying one will assume that they must still be a student pilot? I mean why else would someone fly a Cessna 150? Once you have your license you “graduate” to bigger, faster airplanes right? Isn’t that how it works?

Or could it be that we are afraid to admit that maybe we have not yet learned everything there is to know and that this little airplane still has much to teach us after all?

And so as I ponder these questions and wrestle with my own demons over my not owning a “REAL AIRPLANE” I think back over the many gifts that these unassuming little ships have brought me.

It was in a Cessna 152 that I first took controls of an airplane and slipped those surly bonds and it was in that Cessna 152 that my instructor taught me the intricacies of flight. In that little flying schoolhouse I learned of stalls, and of spins. In that tiny classroom I learned of short field and soft field landings. It was in that diminutive little ship that I learned about pilotage, dead reckoning, and electronic navigation. The little Cessna taught me the effects of the wind and of pressure altitude on an airplane. It was in that little 152 that I first wrestled with cross winds and turbulence and in that little 152 that I made my first “greaser.”

It was in a Cessna 150 that I first learned to talk to an airplane and how to listen and understand how it talks to me. It was the Cessna 150 that taught me how an airplane can become an extension of yourself, think “turn left” and she turns left, think “climb” and she climbs, no less instinctive than placing one foot in front of the other. All these lessons and more taught by a patient, forgiving, yet strict tutor made of plastic and aluminum.

It was from a Cessna 152 named N307DW that Steve Brierley, CFI stepped out onto the school parking apron one crisp April morning telling me, “Now give me three full stop landings and I’ll meet you back here.” and with that closed the door on what then appeared to be a huge empty cabin.

It was in that same Cessna 152 that I taxied into position onto the active runway for the fist time alone, for the first time marveled in how quickly the little 152 lifted off the runway and how quickly she climbed to pattern altitude.

I can still remember myself laughing as I turned to express my amazement to my instructor only to find an empty seat beside me. Strange, that after so many hours squeezed into the seats of Cessna 152s with my instructor how completely cavernous that cockpit felt that day. Like the back seat of a Cadillac Elderado it seemed roomy and comfortable. I flew my new best friend around the pattern like a well-practiced pro. Upon my third touch down, words of congratulations from more new friends in the Air Traffic Control Tower. “Welcome home, well Done, PILOT.”

It was in a Cessna 152 that I flew my first solo cross-country flight. One of those milestones of life made all that much more special when I arrived at my destination to find my entire family there to greet me and buy me breakfast at the airport cafĂ©. It was under the wing of that Cessna 152 that for the first time in my memory, my father; so overcome with pride in seeing his son descend from the sky, on time, alone in that wonderful little flying machine, threw his arms around me and said, “Good Job Son, I am proud of you.” I remember being shocked for these were heart-felt words, with a tear to prove they were true, spoken by a man who normally spoke to his son in much harsher tones. I had previously thought that I was a disappointment to the man, but like so many shattered myths before, it took this little Cessna to show me that it wasn’t true.

Some months later with a fresh pilot’s license in hand, it was in a Cessna 150 that for the first time we flew together. Just father and son, high in the sky on our way to a museum and to see the rocky coast of Maine. Few words were spoken during that flight but my father could not have sat taller in that little Cessna’s seat.

I like many pilots do, moved on to bigger and faster airplanes. I would fly in four seat Cessnas, and high performance singles; I’ve flown nimble little bi-planes that were as comfortable flying up-side-down as they were right-side-up and big lumbering flying boats with supercharged four-hundred seventy- five horse power radial engines mounted on each wing.

So many different airplanes with different personalities, different capabilities and different lessons to teach. I flip through my logbooks and remember them all fondly, cherishing each memory, and loving every single one. Yet peppered hear and there between the entries for the Mooneys, the Grummans, and the Pitts Specials, are the little Cessna 150s and 152s, visiting time and time again like a good old friend.

On one day there is cross wind landing practice, and on another a joy-ride up the coast. On yet another day I see we flew into a little grass strip in Livermore Falls, Maine and took my grandmother and her little dog up to see the town in which she grew-up and raised her kids.

“And look Nana, there is your house,” and “look There…There is the Church where you and Bampa got married.”

And still gazing out the window she replied, “Look at how small it all looks,” and “You would never believe you could fit an entire life from There-to-There.”

And now another first is added to my line of firsts with the little C150. More lessons that the little ship has yet to teach me. The lessons of aircraft ownership, and stewardship.

I find it quite fitting that my first airplane is to be a Cessna 150, a type that has given me more than any other and a teacher with still more wisdom to impart. I have great adventures planned and many more stories to write. My new old friend the Cessna 150 and I have a bright future indeed. I can think of few airplanes deserving of more respect.

To Live, Per Chance to Write...

By way of introduction you can call me Tactic (long story). This is my first post on my first ever Blog. Blog, the idea is an alien one to me. I am not the most net savvy person.

I have lived my entire adult life in the field of Aviation. I have been a pilot for 15 years with time in more than a dozen different aircraft types. I have worked the last thirteen years in the field of Airport Management and have even owned and operated my own privately owned public use airport.

I have worn many hats in my field, Pilot, Airport Manager, Operations Supervisor, Line Crew member, Aviation and Aerial Photographer. And now I have interest in a new hat, that of an Aviation Writer.

I have started a novel, and have written a few short articles for aviation trade publications that nobody has ever heard of.

Recently some people have said my stuff is very good, and this has come as quite a surprise. You see throughout my scholastic career nearly every writing teacher and professor save one, (Thank you Dr. Wellman) had told me that I cannot write.

Being the stubborn type however, the best way to get me to do anything is to tell me that I cannot do it. Still my confidence has been shaken by those "experts" that told me I had no gift for the written word and I rarely finish the writing projects I start for fear that I am not good enough.

As I read the ramblings of those who do get paid to write for aviation periodicals, I have become more and more disappointed with the state of aviation writers today.

I fell in love with aviation at an early age, due in no small part to the writings of Richard Bach, Gordon Baxter, Ernest K. Gann, and the like. Flipping through the usual aviation periodicals today, Flying, Private Pilot, AOPA Pilot, Plane & Pilot, etc. You will find no one of such caliber.

Now I do not profess to be a talent on the level of Bach or Gann. I bring them up because they wrote about aviation in a way that you never hear any more. Lost in the modern day discussion of GPS, and EFB's is the beauty and romance of flight that made us want to be pilots in the first place.

Thirty-five thousand dollars for a new GPS/Satellite Weather/Navigation System you say? - Yeah Right, that's more than my airplane cost!

$300,000.00 for a new Cessna? Come on, I'm a public servant working for a state airport authority. My house didn't cost that much!

All I see in these periodicals are articles about the latest million dollar airplane, or the latest hundred thousand dollar avionics package. Never do I hear of the average Joe who flies his 30 + year old, single engine Cessna on a shoestring budget, for the pure love of flight.

What about Joe's trials? How does he cope with the latest TFR or the rising costs of insurance, aircraft parts and maintenance? What kind of adventures does Joe take with his airplane? A trip to visit the relatives? Rise with the sun for a stack of pancakes at the local EAA breakfast Fly-In? Commute to work high over the clogged interstate highway?

Joe represents about 75-80 percent of the aircraft owners and pilots out there today and yet no one writes to, or about him.

Well Joe, this ones for you.